Sociologist, local councillor, activist, drummer from Malta

Friday, May 14, 2010

Symbol of a stagnated duopoly

Michael Briguglio

The Times, Friday, 14th May 2010

The recent farce in Parliament regarding the vote on the Delimara issue serves merely as a reminder of the sad situation of Maltese politics. A human error by a Nationalist MP was not accepted by the Labour opposition but, in return, the Nationalists created a story on how a Labour MP voted. To make matters worse, the Labour Party retaliated by saying it will quit the parliamentary select committee.

How sad! MPs are being paid by the taxpayer and they resort to such immature and irresponsible behaviour, wasting everybody's time in the process. Yet, MPs forget their differences in other instances, such as when they agreed to raise their own pensions! They also conveniently agree to exclude themselves from Malta's Data Protection Act, thus enabling parties to get personal information on Maltese citizens. Not to mention, of course, Malta's unique electoral system, which has been devised to maintain two-party dominance, and Malta's very own party financing system, which is nothing other than "money laundering" in disguise, to the advantage of powerful political and business interests.

Parliament has become a symbol of a stagnated duopoly, which, unfortunately, is made legitimate by voting patterns in Malta. Yet, what are the PN and the PL really offering?

The Nationalist government has its strengths and weaknesses. Despite its seeming unpopularity, in some way or another it manages to present itself as a cohesive bloc, both among its parliamentarians as well as among its voters. Indeed, it seems to be the case that some disillusioned Nationalists do not vote in European or local elections to give a message to their party in time for the general election, or else, vote for a "rebel" candidate in the party's ranks.

The political direction adopted by the PN unites traditional values with consumerist practices and support of big business interests while maintaining some form of welfare in place. I do not endorse this direction but recognise that, in this way, the PN has, so far, succeeded in creating a durable power structure based on the articulation of two main identities - the Catholic and the consumerist - winning support across class lines and among different social groups.

Of course, this entails contradictions, which are commonly found in Christian Democratic parties. Like a pendulum, Nationalist politics can shift from one that fosters a social market to another that moves towards the New Right and neo-liberal economics.

In recent years, liberalisation, privatisation and over-development of land have left their social and ecological impacts on the Maltese islands.

The Nationalists can save their day if the economy recovers, yet, if in government alone in the next election, we can only expect more arrogance, disregard for the environment, confessional politics and a lack of civil liberties and social rights.

Labour does not fare any better. With all the defects of Alfred Sant, the previous Labour leader did manage to make some ground-breaking feats within the party, such as cleansing it from its violent elements and projecting the image of the meritocratic citizen. Of course, Dr Sant's Labour made a mess in its EU campaign and in its management of internal conflicts. Ultimately, however, Dr Sant's project had already imploded in 1998 as it tried to create politics that pleases everyone.

Under Joseph Muscat, we seem to be heading back to 1996 "pleasing everyone approach" in terms of electoral strategy. Labour is resorting to catch-all strategies with the intention of appealing to everyone. Yet, as Peter Mayo put it in a recent seminar on Gramsci, Labour may well be embarking on the road of "misplaced alliances".

Indeed, it is my conviction that, ultimately, Labour's catch-all antics will backfire if Labour wins the next election and is in government alone. What will Labour do with regard to its simultaneous promises to hunters, trappers and environmentalists? How will Labour proceed with its newly-found environmentalist populism when the same party faces big business developers that it never criticises?

How will Labour introduce divorce if it knows that a parliamentary free-vote will have the opposite result? How will it introduce gay rights when it welcomes ultra-conservatives who make shameful parliamentary questions in its ranks?

How will Labour finance the public services it wants to defend when it is clamouring for tax cuts? How will it reconcile social justice with its rhetoric to suspend the Geneva Convention with regard to illegal immigration?

In short, how will Labour reconcile its "moderate" and "progressive" elements?

Winning an election is one thing, producing progressive social change is another. Yet, at the end of the day, does Malta have a critical mass of voters and political constituencies that really want such social change? Or is amoral familism - as depicted by Jeremy Boissevain - the most powerful value in Maltese politics? And does the public get what it wants or does it want what it gets, especially in a system where the two-party duopoly is controlling much of the public sphere and Maltese politics?

The author is chairman of Alternattiva Demokratika - the Green party.

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